Glorious Misadventures
Nikolai Rezanov and
The Dream of Russian America

Owen Matthews
Nikolai Rezanov did actually think that he could --- singlehandedly --- capture what is now Alaska, Western Canada, and California for Mother Russia. It was the end of the 18th Century. Nation-states would land on this or that continent, declare it to be the property of this or that king or queen. Usually it was done in the English or Spanish model: appear, plant a flag, make declarations, draw a map. Bring in cannon and pistols and alcohol: these alone could induce a hasty surrender by the indígenas.

It was always important to bring in representatives of the clergy dressed in holy garb to give their blessings, put a holy imprimatur on the whole project.

It was always best if there were several locals who had been involved in past feuds: you could set them off against each other again. This worked nicely in India, North America, much of Central and South America, most of Africa and here and there in the Far East.

§   §   §

But things were not so assured by the time Rezanov arrived in the waters off Siberia and Alaska. He arrived fresh from the court of Catherine the Great, just before her death in 1796.

He had convinced her (and later her son, Tsar Paul) that what Russia needed was more than a foot in the far East. He proposed that his company, the Russian American Company, be the sole representative of the Crown in that region. And sure enough, a charter for the RAC was signed 8 July 1799.

What was it? As Matthews dryly observes, "The Tsar's present to him [Rezanov] was America."

If you have more than a passing interest in colonial history, and the way empires were built by the schemers and mountebanks from that era, you will get get involved in these Glorious Misadventures. I was somewhat put off by what the youth of our day define as TMI (Too Much Information), viz.:

    Over the next decade over thirty groups of Cossack explorer-adventurers visited the Aleutian Islands, sailing in forty-foot shtitik boats --- single-masted square-sailed vessels of archaic design --- out of Okhotsk and Petropavlovsk.

This, combined with all these dangling Russian names (Alexander Khrapovitsky, Major General Gavriil Okunev, Timofei Demyanenkov, Natalia Alexeyevna Shelikhov, Alexander Zherebtsov, and my favorite, Zoe Paleologina --- Princess of Muscovy) may bedazzle if not discombobulate your mind as it did mine.

You may be confounded if you have a problem locating such obscure Eastern Siberian locales as Yakutsk, Okhotsk and Patropavlosk (not to be confused with Kamchatka) ... and once past the Aleutians, Kodiak, Vakutat and Sitka (not to be confused with New Archangel).

Do not despair. Matthews is a sturdy writer, despite the numerous consonantally-challenged names. With him, you'll find yourself charmed by dozens of eye-opening tidbits about early Russian royalty.

Such as Catherine the Great inviting the encyclopedist Denis Diderot to St. Petersburg, where "Their daily talks became so animated that the Empress was forced to place a table between them to stop the Frenchman from grabbing her knees in his enthusiasm."

Or the proper definition of 19th Century marriage, which "even among the peasantry, was first and foremost a property transaction, and very rarely a love match." (This reminded me of a marriage in Dallas of a young oil magnate to a daughter of the Frito-Lay fortune: "It wasn't a marriage, it was a merger.")

There's Matthew's sterling insight into the guiding philosophy of Spanish government in the New World: it was "medieval ... run like a vast feudal estate;"

    Land was either held directly by the Crown, or by the Church, or aristocracy, who were accountable respectively to the cardinal and the viceroy of Mexico City.

To those who undertook to get rid of the curse of the Empire: "It has been South America's tragedy that its greatest revolutionary, Simón Bolívar, shared the prejudices of his old masters."

The writer throws in a charming footnote on the elaborate dress at the royal courts of the early 19th Century when he tells us that Mahatma Gandhi mused on "being undressed for tea with King George V at Buckingham Palace:" His Majesty was wearing enough clothes for both of us.

§   §   §

Matthews is good company on this journey through a most confusing landscape, in a confusing time, when no one, apparently, knew what they were doing ... not even what they thought they were doing. Our hero, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov could be brilliant in his schemes to bring Japan, Hawai'i, Alaska and California into the Russian fold, but the same time, he was petty, vindictive, and certainly insensitive to the sufferings of others.

When he was traveling by ship --- a relatively tiny ship, the Nadezhda --- from Europe to the North Pacific, he was in constant conflict with the supposed commander-in-chief of the vessel, Adam Johann von Krusenstern.

One fellow Russian said that "R seeks out something new to anger our captain with." It got so heated that von Krusenstern was forced to build a panelled partition down the middle of the Great Cabin. Thus, in these crowed quarters, he could have the confort of not having to put up with Rezanov every day.

Rezanov could be a charmer. When he finally arrived in San Francisco, to the territory of the Spaniards, he met the daughter of the comandante, Doña María de Concepción Conchita Arguello ... and promptly fell in love with her. It was said that she was

    lively and animated and had sparkling and love-inspired eyes, excellent and beautiful teeth, a smiling expression and beautiful features...

Teeth evidently loomed large in the eyes of 19th Century gentlemen: all accounts of the young ladies we read on these pages tell of the condition of their mandibles. Teeth or not, within two weeks Rezanov had won the heart of this "famous beauty." It might have had something to do with the fact that Conchita (as we soon come to know her) was bored silly by the isolated presidio so far from the lively court of Spain. Or it may have had to do with the fact that she was barely fifteen years old. It certainly had to do with the fact that her father commanded a huge territory in what is now California.

Rezanov's score was still a miracle. Marriages were mostly matters of internal finance, and the Spanish upper class tended to guard their young ladies with a fearsome set of abuelitas who neither invited nor permitted hanky-panky ... even from the Russian nobility. As Matthews suggests,

    In just over a fortnight Rezanov had gone from being an overdressed stranger with bad breath to a member of the colony's ruling family, privy to state secrets.

The "bad breath" refers to the crew of the Juno arriving after a desperate trip down the coast, all of them suffering from scurvy, which makes one thin, bony, smelly, and desiccated, with all one's teeth, beautiful or not, falling spontaneously from the jaws.

§   §   §

This passionate affair between Rezanov and Conchita is where our author got involved in Rezanov's history. For despite his hardiness and persistence, this Russian diplomat and scoundrel was to succumb to pneumonia and possibly malaria on his later journey back to St. Petersburg. His passion for Conchita --- which had evolved over a few weeks --- was never to be consummated: he never saw her again. But the tale of this young nobleman and his barely pubescent sweetie was to inspire endless romantic nonsense over the next century and a half, culminating, if you will believe it, in a Soviet Rock Opera named Junona i Avos.

It was modelled on Jesus Christ Superstar and for some reason got past the Moscow censors in 1981, ended up being a resounding success. Still is, for it has been staged continuously over the past thirty years.

This production bewildered our young historian when he first saw it in 1986, "since, as a bookish and bespectacled young chap I didn't like pop music much and found the production loud and shocking. But the audience loved it:"

    This was beyond anything I had ever seen. The standing ovation continued for fifteen minutes.

The books and poems that shaped the romantic fantasy of Rezanov and Conchita were, for the most part, bad, and the master of gorp was one Francis Bret Harte. He wrote a poem, "Conception de Arguello," which ends with Conchita's last days:

    "Lives she yet?" A deathlike silence fell on banquet, guests, and hall,
    And a trembling figure rising fixed the awestruck gaze of all.
    Two black eyes in darkened orbits gleamed beneath the nun's white hood:
    Black serge hid the wasted figure, bowed and stricken where it stood.

These idylls include one by an American writer of the 19th Century, one Gertrude Atherton, who wrote a novel Rezanov (1906). In the noble interest of history, Matthews, our chronicler, suffered through a reading of the whole book.

He writes, "The novel can only be described as fascinatingly bad."

--- Lolita Lark
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH